5 Simple Ways to Develop Your Landscape Style
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This year, the world will shoot somewhere between one and two trillion photos. This is roughly equal to the total number of film images taken in the entire history of photography. In the past 24 hours alone, at least two billion of these files have been uploaded to the internet, most of which can now be accessed by anyone, anywhere at any time.
This huge explosion in the number of images we have right at our fingertips has made it immensely difficult for our own work to stand out, especially in a popular genre like landscapes. Fortunately, there is something very simple you can do to make your work more noticeable. And that is to develop your own style. We explore the five indispensable steps for defining and building your unique style.
1. Define Your Approach
Perhaps the single most important step to building your signature style is to decide what you are going to shoot and how you are going to shoot it. Landscapes is a very broad genre, and narrowing your work down to a more specific area can help give it definition. Ansel Adams, probably the best-known landscape photographer of all time, specialised in shooting large-format black and whites in Yosemite National Park. It might have been niche, but he owned it, and that made his work remarkable. Your challenge is to do the same thing as Adams, although giving up work to live a solitary life with the bears is, of course, entirely optional.
The importance of shooting what you enjoy can not be overstated, so it is worth doing some photographic soul-searching to decide exactly what that is. Some people are fascinated by the coast, so like the ocean to feature in their landscape images. Others prefer to work in urban or woodland landscapes, or like to shoot everything within a specific area like the Lake District or the Highlands. You might even decide to focus on specific subject like lighthouses or windmills, or to shoot landscapes exclusively with people in. Alternatively, you could specialise in night-time landscapes, or experiment with capturing abstract scenes.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you don’t narrow your approach you will dilute your photographic style – there are lots of ways to differentiate your work – but this is probably the easiest and quickest way to standardise what you shoot, and become known for it. Shooting the same subject over and over again is also a sure-fire way to get extremely skilled at it, so you can expect the overall quality of your results to improve. If you try to photograph everything, you will probably find you can never really explore any subject in the proper depth.
Introduce a technique
Once you have chosen a landscape location or subject, you can try introducing a specific photographic technique to help set your images apart. Perhaps the most obvious example is to use ND filters to achieve a slow shutter speed, allowing moving objects such as water, clouds and grasses to blur. This particular approach has become very popular in recent years, and can give your shoots a really professional edge.
Mads Peter Iversen (see below) is known for his waterfall photography, and he regularly uses long exposures as part of his unique style. In other words, he is combined a specific subject with a particular technique, just like Ansel Adams did.
Control what you share
Developing your style is not just about what you shoot. In fact, it is much more about what you share. When it comes to your online presence, try to think of yourself as a brand, and ask yourself whether what you are posting is consistent with that brand’s style. If you have a shot that simply is not ‘you’, resist the temptation to post it, even if it is a great image.
2. Select the Right Tools
By focusing your approach to landscape photography, you have just taken an important step towards making your images more consistent and more recognisably ‘you’. But it doesn’t end there. You need to be thinking about evolving your unique style at every stage of the shooting and editing process. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the role gear plays in the look of your shots.
Choose your focal length
For most landscapers, a wide-angle lens is the go-to glass for the vast majority of scenes, as the very wide angle-of-view makes it possible to include distant background and extreme foreground in the frame, and allows more of the scene to be included.
The problem is, shooting at the same focal length as everyone else doesn’t exactly separate you from the pack, so why not consider less commonly used lenses that can give your shots a more distinctive look instead. One option is to go for a standard 50mm prime, or ‘nifty fifty’, which has a similar focal length to the human eye. These lenses aren’t often used for landscape photography, but they are cheap, portable and extremely sharp. Standard lenses also mean less visible perspective distortion than wide-angles, and the result tend to look very natural, as it is how we are used to seeing the world.
Alternatively, you could try a longer telephoto lens. These are great for isolating a very small part of a landscape, and they tend to produce a compressed perspective where the nearest and furthest parts of the frame appear to be closer together than they really are.
Try a different camera
Most of us use a DSLR or CSC to capture our landscapes, but you can get a very stylised look with other cameras. If you are attracted by film, why not invest in a vintage medium-format camera? They are relatively inexpensive, and will get you very different results to a DSLR. You will get that analogue aesthetic and exceptional dynamic range, plus a very en vogue square format.
3. Master Light and Colour
From the Greek word ‘photo’ meaning ‘light’, and ‘graphia’ meaning ‘drawing’, photography is all about how you record the world with the light you have available. A landscape can look incredibly different depending on the lighting, so time of day, the season, the weather can make all the difference between a dull, lifeless snapshot and an epic, eye-catching image.
Choose the right light
The classic time of day for shooting landscapes is around sunrise or sunset, often termed ‘golden hour’. On clear days, the low angle of the sun casts long shadows, increases contrast in the landscape and bathes everything in a warm glow. Other photographers prefer textured, stormy skies, which tend to produce emotive, dramatic images with plenty of character.
A good strategy to start with is to look out for unusual or dramatic lighting conditions and just go out hunting. You might decide that you enjoy shooting at all different times of the year in every type of weather conditions. Lots of landscapers work like this and it is a good strategy. If you do it well, it will definitely give your work a stylised look.
It is worth being mindful that shooting around golden hour means you are competing with 90% of the world’s landscape photographers, so it will be much harder to make your images stand out. It is unlikely, for example, that you will become nationally renowned for your long exposure coastal sunsets, as it has done so much. But if you choose to specialise in photographing misty beech forests in autumn, which are equally as beautiful, you simply won’t have that problem.
4. Develop Your Editing Look
Over the past few years, post-processing has played an increasingly dominant role in the look of our images. In fact, many landscapers spend far more time behind a computer screen than out on location, often producing images that bear only a passing resemblance to the original RAW.
There are a million-and-one processing tools at your disposal to adjust and shape an image’s pixels in virtually any way you like. By building up editing habits, you will eventually develop a distinctive processing style common to every single shot. If you don’t do this, you risk your portfolio seeming incohesive, even if there is significant variation in your subject matter or approach. A good first step is to look around at how other photographers edit their work. Try to spot processing traits that run through their entire portfolio. You will probably notice that the very best landscapers rarely overprocess their shots, so keep this in mind as your style evolves. Consider editing as working a bit like make-up for your images – if the viewer notices it is there, you have probably applied too much!
Stand out with mono
Despite the fact that colour photography has been commonplace since the 1950s, there are still many highly successful landscape pros who edit their shots in black and white. In the absence of colour, the viewer is more likely to focus on other visual properties, including pattern, tone, shape and texture. You might decide that this suits the types of landscape you photograph, and choose to make mono a part of your style. Alternatively, you might differentiate yourself by using another editing technique, such as replicating the fashionable retro look, or using the HDR technique.
The use of colour is also a really effective editing tool, either by tweaking the saturation, or by adjusting white balance for a warmer or cooler look.
Change the format
If you are not an accomplished Photoshopper, you may want to try a different approach to make your photo stand out from the crowd. Changing the shape or format of your images is a simple yet effective way of enhancing your shots, and it could be exactly what your portfolio needs. A good example of a format change is panoramas, where you can either simply crop the top and bottom off an image, or stich several images together. Alternatively, you could crop off the sides on an image for an Instagram-friendly square, an in-fashion format that was also common in the days of film. This is really easy to do in Photoshop – just select the Croop Tool from the Tools palette, then at the top choose 1×1(Square) from the drop-down box. You can move the position of the crop area by dragging it.
5. Do Something Different
There are only two ways to stand out from the crowd – to be better, or be different. By all means strive for both, but it is the latter where you are more likely to enjoy success – there is far less competition there!
Ideally you will come up with a concept for your landscape images that no one has thought of yet, although in reality it will probably be your twist on an existing idea. It actually doesn’t need to be original, just unusual enough to catch the viewer’s eye.
Find your niche
How you actually go about being different is something only you can decide, and it will probably develop gradually over time, rather than being a ‘eureka’ moment. Our advice would be to search the internet for great ideas then try replicating them yourself, perhaps pushing them in a slightly different direction.
Put it all into action
So that brings us to the end of our five tips for developing your own photographic style. But it is really just the beginning of your journey towards creating a more recognisable and remarkable landscapes portfolio. And if you are doing it right, it is a journey that you should never actually ever complete. Our advice is to use elements of every single one of these tips, and really push yourself in a particular niche. Get out there, perfect it, and really make it yours.